You should arrive at the airport to take your flight to Madrid. On arrival a coach will take you to Salamanca, taking approximately two and a half hours, where we stay for the next two nights on a bed and breakfast basis.
Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is acknowledged by many Spaniards as one of the country’s most beautiful cities and when you see it, it really is difficult to disagree. Built virtually entirely of the local sandstone which gives it a gorgeous rose-coloured hue, it seems almost to glow, especially during the sunset. The beautiful setting, perched on a small hill on a bend in the serene River Tormes, is a picture of tranquillity despite the city’s violent heritage. Founded by the Romans, who built the 400 yard long bridge which is still in use, it was repeatedly fought over by Hannibal, the Moors and finally, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. Today, the city is dominated by its two cathedrals and university, the oldest in Spain founded in 1215 and for four centuries one of the most important seats of study in the civilised world. The records of the Spanish Inquisition are still kept here, it made major contributions to international law and, as early, as the sixteenth century boasted some twelve thousand students. You can see all the beautifully preserved lecture halls with vaulted ceilings and the library where you can imagine the moment Christopher Columbus came to address the most learned men of the day. So, after breakfast, we have a guided tour of Salamanca during which you will see all this and more, with the remainder of the day free to explore as you wish. You must visit the two cathedrals – the more recent dates from the 16th century! Whilst the buildings themselves dominate the skyline, their internal decoration is just as breathtaking. Salamanca is a wonderful place to just wander: tiny streets, medieval squares, traditional shops, gardens, market places all add to its atmosphere. The main square, the Plaza Mayor, is widely acknowledged as the finest in the country and the hub of Salamantine life. With plenty of cafés and places to sit and watch the locals go by, it is the perfect venue to soak up the lovely atmosphere. For one of the most memorable views, simply cross the river and look back at the Roman bridge and the rose red city rising in the distance -perfection indeed!
After breakfast we say goodbye to Salamanca, soon arriving in Segovia, capital of the old Kingdom of Castille and another lovely city. Dating back to Roman times, today it proudly boasts one of the most finely preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. Being over half a mile long and 100 feet high, this relic of the ancient world is all the more remarkable when you realise not a drop of mortar or cement has been used in its construction. It was also the home of Queen Isabella who commissioned Christopher Columbus to discover the New World. There are some superb Renaissance paintings in the cathedral but the fairytale Alcazar, or castle, dominates the superb old city and should be visited if only for the fantastic panoramic views over the whole area. Segovia, though, like the other old cities of Spain, is untouched by the excesses of modern tourism and nothing could be better than watching the locals going about their everyday business, shopping in the market, exchanging a few words with friends in the street or enjoying that most traditional of pastimes, sampling a few tapas in a local bar. It is this blend of olde-worlde charm and modern-day reality which makes Segovia such a joy in which to pass a few hours. We then continue our journey to Madrid and our hotel for the next four nights, the four-star Catalonia Gran Vía, where we stay on a bed-and-breakfast basis with one evening meal included at a local restaurant. Built in 1917, the centrally located hotel occupies a charming building on a lively street renowned for its early 20th-century architecture and upscale shops. Some dates stay at the four-star Novotel Puente de la Paz, with breakfast and four dinners, including an evening meal at a local restaurant. This hotel is well-located just outside the centre of Madrid, with easy local transport links to Puerta del Sol, the geographical centre of the city.
This morning after breakfast, we will have a sightseeing tour of Madrid, during which we will see some of the sights for which this capital city is most famous: the beautiful Plaza Mayor, the vast square in the heart of old Madrid; the Prado Museum with one of the world’s finest art collections, housing many great works by artists such as Goya and Dali; the Royal Palace, former official residence of the Royal Family; the Plaza De España home to a statue of the legendary Don Quixote; the Puerta del Sol, the point from which all distances in Spain are measured and marks the official centre of the country, plus much more. During the afternoon you are free to explore as you wish.
Today we head out of Madrid towards the Sierra de Guadarrama, an 80km range of mountains full of an ancient oak forests as well as pine and juniper groves, and the home to diverse flora and fauna. Our destination is the legendary monastery and former royal residence of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Once considered the eighth wonder of the world and now justifiably a UNESCO world heritage site, this vast complex was commissioned by King Phillip II. The construction started in 1563, taking just 21 years to complete and no expense was spared. Built in quadrangle with each corner dominated by impressive towers, one theory is that the design is based on descriptions for the temple of Solomon. The imposing formal stone facade could not be more different from the interior and gives no hint as to the treasures within. The monastery has been richly decorated by many notable artists of the 16th and 17th centuries and the legacy of this royal patronage is an outstanding number of important frescoes, altar pieces and paintings throughout the monastery and palace building. After time to explore the complex you return to the hotel mid-afternoon. This evening we do not eat in the hotel but take the short drive to Chinchón, a beautiful, provincial village full of the atmosphere of rural Spain, famous for its pretty town square and locally produced aniseed liqueur. We arrive after siesta, when the town comes to life, and have a little time to wander and absorb its ambience before visiting a lovely restaurant, converted from a former olive mill, where you will be served specialities of the region.
This morning we have a guided tour of the beautiful city of Toledo, standing out against the often luminously blue Castilian sky; a golden biscuit coloured city rising from the plain and circled by a steep ravine filled by the turbulent waters of the river. It is as spectacularly rich in history, buildings and art as any city in the world can be and we spend most of the day here. Being at the crossroads of several cultures during its long and often violent past, it takes its influences from Jewish, Christian and Moorish civilisations. It was Philip II, builder of the Spanish Armada who moved the capital from Toledo to nearby Madrid, thus ensuring Toledo would survive in its totally unspoiled form. Nowadays it is most well-known for its majestic Alcazar Palace perching on the top of the hill, its fantastic cathedral, richly adorned with treasures plundered from the New World, and its wealth of other buildings. Indeed El Greco lived here and you can visit his house where some of his paintings are displayed. The most lethal weapon of the 16th century world, the rapier, was invented here, and the city is still renowned today for its high quality metalwork. We leave Toledo late afternoon and return to our hotel.
Today, at the appropriate time, the coach will take us to Madrid airport to take our return flight home.